Coffee House

In defence of Mary Whitehouse

7 June 2010

4:29 PM

7 June 2010

4:29 PM

The first time I interviewed Mary Whitehouse was for the Evening Standard in 1965. She
seemed to me a narrow-minded schoolmarm, and after our encounter I wrote a teenagerish attack on her. I was thrilled by the satire boom that had been launched by That Was The Week That Was, and I
loved other shows that she opposed, such as Till Death Us Do Part.

In the event, Charles Wintour, then the Standard’s editor, spiked my article. ‘You haven’t understood the point about Mrs Whitehouse,’ he said. ‘She’s challenged
the system. She has annoyed the hell out of the Director-General of the BBC, [Hugh Carleton Greene]. But she’s got a constituency behind her and she’s making an impact.’

Charles Wintour was a Roy Jenkins liberal who supported the social changes that so dismayed Mrs Whitehouse during the 1960s – the abolition of theatre censorship, the Abortion Act of 1967,
the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 (decriminalising homosexuality), and the Divorce Act of 1969. Wintour in fact adored everything that the 1960s presaged. He sent me off to do to the first interview
with Richard Neville, editor of the magazine Oz, who boasted that ‘the weapons of revolution are obscenity, blasphemy and drugs’. He was also excited by Anthony Burgess’s A
Clockwork Orange (1962), which he serialised in the Evening Standard (Mary Whitehouse excoriated the novel –and the movie –  for its gratuitous violence.)

Nevertheless, Wintour possessed journalistic vision to see that Mrs Whitehouse should be taken seriously. Indeed, he believed that Sir Hugh Carleton Greene had made the greatest mistake of his
career in showing nothing but contempt for this puritan crusader on behalf of traditional English values.

As Filth, the entertaining television drama-documentary of Mary Whitehouse’s life, demonstrated, for 20 years after launching her ‘Clean-Up TV’ campaign in 1963, she was
mercilessly tormented by the liberal establishment. She was banned from entering Broadcasting House; indeed her name could not even be mentioned on the air without prior reference to senior
management. The only other person considered so dangerous was Enoch Powell.


A pointed TV skit, ‘Mrs Swizzlewick’, was based on her character. A book she wrote was ritually burned in an episode of Till Death Us Do Part. The Director-General adorned his office
with an obscene painting of her, with a multitude of naked breasts at which he would aim darts. A mocking comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, was named after her.

Supporters of Gay News organised demonstrations in which posters presented Mary Whitehouse in company with Adolf Hitler, while the mob yelled ‘Whitehouse – Kill! Kill! Kill!’  She
received threats to her life, was repeatedly called a ‘fascist’, and was described as ‘a prostitute’ by the late Ned Sherrin. A porn star changed her name by deed poll to
‘Mary Whitehouse’. (She subsequently committed suicide, lending credence to Mrs Whitehouse’s thesis that the exploitation of sex leads to personal misery.)

And what did Mary do to deserve this persistent calumny? She objected vociferously, and often with a phalanx of viewers and listeners behind her, to the way in which the values of a Christian
Britain she cherished were being undermined by what we would now call ‘a metropolitan elite’. She protested that this country was acquiring an ‘alien’ character, by which
she meant that it was being subverted not by foreign influences, but by a minority cultural elite. There was a class element to her clashes with the BBC, as she led the unsophisticated and
provincial against the elite sophisticates of Oxbridge.
Mary Whitehouse has often been represented as prejudiced, intolerant and homophobic. Yet her attitudes were rather archaic than malicious. She believed, like Sir John Reith in the 1920s and 1930s,
that it was the duty of the BBC to ‘edify’ the nation, rather than to roll back the boundaries of decency. Similarly, she attacked the Royal National Theatre for producing a play like
The Romans in Britain, which included a scene of anal rape, which Sir Peter Hall rather pompously said was necessary to symbolise the penetration of Britain by Imperial Rome.
She claimed repeatedly that she was not hostile to homosexuals; she was unable, however, to accept that they were morally equivalent to heterosexuals. Equally, she protested against premarital
intercourse and the sexual exploitation of children. In public entertainment she crusaded against violence, rape, full-frontal nudity, coarse language, and smoking and drinking.
Mrs Whitehouse did indeed protest too much; she saw slights against decency in everything, and especially took personally insults against Jesus Christ. Some of her complaints were just silly: she
criticised a Beatles song in the Magical Mystery Tour because it contained the line “You’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down”. She deprecated the innuendo in the
sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum: and thought Top of the Pops ‘anti-authority’. She disliked Cathy Come Home because she thought it Left-wing propaganda, which she thought all part of
the BBC’s agenda.

Yet despite her over-statement and misjudged targets Mary Whitehouse was a significant figure. Some of her battles were justified, even prophetic. Today her attacks on ‘kiddie porn’
would be widely supported. In the late 1970s paedophilia was regarded by some as a valid ‘sexual orientation’, while the Paedophile Information Exchange was associated with the National
Council for Civil Liberties. Piquantly, Natalie Walter, daughter of the anarchist and atheist Nicholas Walter, a fierce enemy of Mrs Whitehouse, has recently written Living Dolls, a denunciation of
the sexualisation of young girls.

Mary Whitehouse’s views on pornography and rape have also been endorsed by feminists. When I encountered her again in the early 1980s, at a Cambridge Union debate where she inveighed against
the degradation of women by pornography, a group in the audience raised their clenched fists and shouted ‘Right on, Mary.’

The opinion, supported by several experts in the 1960s and 1970s, that sadistic pornography afforded an ‘aid to masturbation’, would hardly be accepted today; no more would the opinions
of Dr Brian Richards, who claimed in 1975 that a picture of a pointed sword and a cat o’ nine tails striking at a chained naked woman’s genitals was ‘for the public good’,
being ‘therapeutic’. Mary Whitehouse’s opposition to the pornographic film Inside Linda Lovelace proved amply justified when, years later, it emerged that the actress had been
coerced into a form of sex slavery during the making of the film. (Sir John Mortimer, having earlier defended Gay News against Mrs Whitehouse’s charge of blasphemy, pleaded for the film
company in the case of Linda Lovelace.)

Furthermore, Mary Whitehouse’s insistence that the BBC should be accountable to its public is now widely accepted. It is also today thought undesirable to offend religious sensibilities,
especially if they are Islamic. One wonders whether Geoffrey Robinson, QC, would now be as eager to defend a poem about a Roman centurion’s homosexual desire for the Prophet Muhammad, as he
was in 1977 to perform the same service on behalf of James Kirkup’s verses on the centurion’s longing for Christ.

Had she lived to see her centenary on 13 June, Mary Whitehouse would have been saddened by many aspects of our culture. The trends against which she struggled so valiantly – the dominance of
secularism, the exaltation of violence, the explicit portrayal of sex, and the acceptance of coarse language – all persist.

All the same, and perhaps much to Mrs Whitehouse’s credit, many conservative values have endured and returned again in freshened livery. The kitchen-sink dramas which the BBC propagated in
the 1960s have given way to wall-to-wall Jane Austen, and the flurry of bonnets in Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford.

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Show comments
  • WillMoor

    “She claimed repeatedly that she was not hostile to homosexuals”

    Most homophobes do make that claim. I would say 85 to 90% of them do. Does this make homophobia ok? I will NEVER join you in lauding homophobes. Also, I don’t understand why you seem to equate being seen as “dangerous” with something that should be celebrated. She WAS dangerous. Homophobia is dangerous and unhealthy for LGBT people. Its amazing that as of 2010 when you wrote this Mary Whitehouse cheer piece, you were so dismissive of the concerns of gay people, as if something being “archaic” makes it OK.

  • agrfgfg

    She was a fascist and so is anyone who agrees with her

  • David Booth

    I have just been listening to Womans Hour (15 June) on the dangers of exposing young people to sex as portrayed on the internet and I swear I could hear the ghost of Mary Whitehouse chucling along the corridors of tha BBC.

  • AC

    Some of the homophobic comments here are disgusting.

    People don’t have the right to offend and incite violence against others. I don’t understand why freedom of speech is seen as so holy by the neo-nazis. I’d rather have freedom from repression from religious idiots, than freedom of nazis to spout their anti-gay nonsense.

    God doesn’t exist, he’s just an imaginary friend to help you deal with your fears in life. Get over it, and stop worrying about what other people do in their bedrooms.

  • sean schofield

    Quite right that there is no way anyone can win an arguement/debate with these twisted types, however what one can do and we all have a responsibility here is to remain vigilant and aware that these types need to be monitored very very closely indeed, first came across it in the hinterland of the united states 25 years ago and knew that when this monstrosity hit our shores it was going to be a major issue, recently in the last 10 years or so these types have found their way into every institution from the media to the police and other agencies, i feel like the photographer in the film the omen, except and being agnostic its in reverse mode , good to know there are other brave soldiers out there.(not of the onward christian soldier type )

  • AndyinBrum

    Sean, we’re trying to have rational arguments with people who believe in an invisible all powerful, yet strangely impotent being. Not going to happen

  • sean schofield

    I stand by statement re twisted people, the diffrence between evangelicals, athiests/humanists is we dont feel the need to ram our thoughts down the throats of others.
    However when the flat earth society with their bible in one hand and their machine gun in the other (armed missionaries) start to provoke trouble we are entitled to defend our society.
    This notion that if we dont follow the bible, society will degenerate into paedophilia and drug addled despair is vexatious, without foundation and based on ridicule and fear.
    As far as ridding society of and exterminations go, study the holocaust, and you will find that that ideology was based on some extremly peculialy twisted religious notions.(nazis and tibet)
    Once again the evangelicals are attempting to drag us down to their (martyr victim) we are all oppressed nonsense.
    Society is not doomed , we are not going to hell(it doesnt exist)
    Yes there is evil in the world, yes there are somethings that cannot be logically explained, but we would have a greater understanding of those intangibles if narrow minded religions got out of the way.

  • AndyinBrum

    Actually there’s nothing more incoherent than a God that is suposedly all powerful, all encompassing, all knowledgable, all loving but is so insecure that they need religions to support them, worship them, give their lives for them, build temples and great architecture for them, demand to be protected from all those nasty types that disagree with them, to kill all unbelievers and generally make everyone’s life a misery with their incesant whinging and whining.

  • AndyinBrum

    Hadrian, it’s taken your 3 days to come up with that bollocks?

    We’ll leave persecutions of “others” to you religious types, you’ve had centuries of practice.

    So as an evangelical, does that mean you believe the bible is 100% accurate and is the true word of god and all initial is true and happened?

  • Hadrian

    Well, at least the veneer that the humanists come up with of ‘all religions being equal’ and should have equal reatment falls away. Evangelical Christians are ‘twisted people’ who deserve ‘no place’ in modern society. So, who’s going to start the exterminations, then to ‘cleanse’ society? How convenient of the atheist to blame all of society’s ills, evils and strife on religion when patently mankind is perfectly capable of irrational hatred without the least thought of the God to whom they must one day answer. There is nothing as incoherent as the self righteous indignation of the atheist for whom Man is the measure of all things but nothing much more than mud. As the satirical song put it: ‘Life’s a piece of s**t but lookon the bright side.’ The Morals that have benefited this country spring directly from our Creator and the further we drift from them and rebel against them the messier things will become.

  • sean schofield

    Andy in brum,
    How could one possibly overlook the unprecedented level of experience that those in organised chritian religions have in arenas such as this.
    You are right i mean those people have an outstanding level of experience in such affairs and realy do know how to practise what they preach.
    A superb retort and response,

  • AndyinBrum

    Sean, I would say, looking at their past records, Christian organisations are probably fantasticaly qualified to comment on sexual deviency 😉

  • AndyinBrum

    Hadrian, your faith stems from a bunch of iron age fairy tales & Jewish propaganda, but please don’t let that get in the way of Trying to tell the rest of us who think belief in a big mythical, invisible supreme being is a bit silly, exactly what we must read, watch, think and believe.

  • sean schofield

    Surely the most logical approach would be enabling specialists who are qualified to tackle such serious issues re sexual deviation rather than evangelical christians who have demonstrated time and time again that they are not suitable and often one finds that their meddleing often makes matters much much worse, many mainstream folk believe that these evangelical types need to be firmly put back in their place and that the nuisance factor and the hassle they bring with them are nothing but aggro, my view is they also undermine the difficult and distasteful work that specialist police forces quietly undertake and there is no place in modern society for these twisted people.

  • Hadrian

    As for the clever clogs poster who thinks Mrs W. would be extolling the ‘virtues’ of Islam, you clearly haven’t a clue about the central tenet of evangelical Christianity. Our religion is not focused on a mere set of moral standards- though those standards are vital- but on the need for salvation through a personal Sin bearing Messiah. If you think ANY true Christian would exchange that wonderful gift for the dismal self righteousness of moralistic Islam, you are blind indeed.
    Our national morality flows not from a few pathetic, self centred nihilists but from Almighty God and one day we’ll all be answerable for how we’ve treated this gift of life.

  • Nicholas


    Yes, “judge and censure”. That about sums you up.

  • Thucydides


    I, too, enjoy the ability to comment freely – including the scope to judge and censure. I’m hardly the only one to do so.

    I reread your post above, and I still don’t know why you kept referring specifically to women, rather than people, or writers or something. What has the fact that Marys Whitehouse and Kenny are both women got to do with anything?

    And it’s wimmin, not wimmen.

  • Nicholas

    “But let’s have a rest from naked misogyny, eh Nicholas?”

    Why? We get plenty of naked misandry these days. Besides, I do not hate and I am not contemptuous of all females, only the ranting, crusading, socialist ones and the ones with very small brains and big gobs that proliferate on our TVs. There are plenty of men in these categories too – especially the many socialist male honorary wimmen.

    So, let’s have a rest from your barbed comments directed mostly at other posters, eh Thucydides? We may still comment freely here, thank God, without self-appointed superiors like you judging and censuring everyone.

  • Thucydides

    Mary Whitehouse basically lost the good fight – and I am delighted she did so. Who – apart from a few strange posters here – would want to live in the suffocating, repressed world of the 1930s BBC?

    But let’s have a rest from naked misogyny, eh Nicholas?

  • Hadrian

    As a fellow teacher whose career spanned roughly the same time as Mrs Whitehouse’s crusade I can only say her views of where we’d end up as a society were prescient and sadly accurate. I deplored the basically nihilist ‘permissiveness’ then and even more so now. On a daily basis we are subjected to behaviour so coarse and bestial it is incredible we live in the same nation as in the Fifties. Our society is doomed if it doesn’t repent quickly. Hell mend the aged, remorseful libertines of the Sixties and let us pray fervently for spiritual revival.

  • Alex

    A very good article.

    I still find it amazing that (presumably non-Christian) authors have no problem using the word “Christ” as a swear word but would not dream of using Mohammed’s name the same way. The excuse being that it’s “reality”.

    Having been on a jury, I would say “reality” is that two out of three words spoken are “f***” and “c***” – so why not get “real” and use those words or stay “unreal” and stop offending Christians.

  • AndyinBrum

    So because Mary Whitehouse dind like it, then no one else should be allowed to watch it?

    Bollocks to that.

    And by the way, “The Mary Whitehouse Experience” was hardly a send up of Mrs Whitehouse,it was hardly an expletive filled show about sex, drugs, violence and knocking christianity.

  • MikeF

    Now there’s a coincidence. Today sees the opening of an exhibition at the Tate Britain called Rude Britannia – or so the Daily Telegraph says – that includes a drawing by Gerald Scarfe from 1971 of Mary Whitehouse “in a sexual position”. It is difficult to think of a more appropriate example of the way the ‘liberal-left’ always reacted to her – by pure scatology and abuse in the hope it would make her look ridiculous rather than by argument.

    Why they did so is not too difficult to identify why. Not least, of course, because she was a woman and as such provoked the reflexive misogeny that is always present just under the surface of so much of the left.

    This isn’t to say that she was right on everything – she wasn’t – but she was right on some things, such as the danger that paedophilia might be normalised. That points another reason the left hated her – the fact that she showed that the ‘libertarianism’ of the left does not necessarily lead to enlightenment and tolerance but can also open the way for abuse and exploitation. The left can never really forgive anyone who shows that their thinking may be inconsistent and even contradictory.

  • mongoose

    The BBC neither forgives nor forgets. It has now unleashed the thinking man’s crumpet on the deceased Mrs Whitehouse.

  • David Lindsay

    As Mary Kenny knows, Mary Whitehouse was one of the first to take up the struggle against the Paedophile Information Exchange. A sometime Labour voter, what would she have made of Harriet Harman as Leader? Such is exactly what the rest of us should make of it.

  • Austin Barry

    Having watched this pursed-lipped church lady throughout the 60s/70s, I rather suspect that she would now be extolling the family values of Islam.

  • Nicholas

    I cannot take seriously a blog about one strident, zealous woman by another strident, zealous woman. Let’s have a rest from strident, zealous women and the various miseries the strident, zealous and vociferous women who want to control things wish to impose on others, eh Mary?

  • stereodog

    An extremely well argued essay but I think that it ignores the central, sane objection to her campaigns. If she merely argued that the majority of the viewing public did not want to see ‘filth’ on TV then I would have no objection, but instead she advocated banning things based on a morality code that rightly or wrongly is not shared by everyone. I always object to people who want to ban things even if I agree with their principle. Could Mrs Whitehouse not have asked her supporters to boycott any programmes taht offend them and let market forces do the rest? It is wrong to call her a facist as she was excercising her right to have her opinion heard, but she would have denied others programmes they enjoyed just as she percieved the BBC was doing to her.

  • Yow Min Lye

    One day this country will recognise that it owes as great a debt to Mary Whitehouse for courageously upholding truth in the face of a terrible evil as it does to William Wilberforce.

  • Naomi Muse

    Thanks, Mary Kenny. Mary Whitehouse also did not think the public should be dictated to by Greene for political or other reasons.

    She was also triggered into action by the changes in censorship and the release to publish, by Penguin books, the paperback of Lady Chatterly some two years earlier.

    Obviously concerned about how such things would affect children, in particular, she led quite a backlash.

    It is interesting how Joan Bakewell has, as it were, turned full circle in attitude although she will never look like the permed silver haired Mary Whitehouse.

  • paulg

    What we have seen over the last few decades is a whole scale attack on what it is to be a human being.

    Human culture, dignity and aspiration are not found in filth or degradation of other: it’s not a question of morals or ethics it is a basic condition of humanity.

    Like Nazism liberalism strips the human being of soul, automating them, reducing them to commodities.

    Allowing teenage boys to view women as sexual toys, being raped and sodomised, as can happen at the click of a button on the internet,; does not, only rob women of dignity it destroys any chance of boys understanding women’s needs. There are no winners in liberalism only a commercial value.

    No enduring society has ever been built on a foundation without any values and, as surely as Sodom and Gomorrah turned to dust, so will ours return to dust.

  • kinglear

    The point, of course, is that the fascists were those who opposed her. Everyone ( Jew Gentile, Islamist, Hindu, Pole,black, white yellow or green)should be able to say what they think without fear or favour. It is entirely allowable to disagree – but never forget, as this article amply illustrates, that times change. I have long believed that we who were the angry young men of the 60s did more to ruin our society than even Brown managed over the last decade.

  • oldtimer

    I was unaware of the BBCs, and the DGs, attitude to Mary Whitehouse that you have described. The BBC has much to answer for. I do not think it is much better behaved now – despite your references to Jane Austen etc. I have long held the view that it is a bureaucratic, self centred organisation that thinks it knows best. (It certainly knows how to afford the best so far as its salaries and expenses are concerned). But it also turns out to be thoroughly unpleasant as well. So much for the “auntie” image we were encouraged to believe.

    It needs to be cut up and reduced to its public service broadcasting remit and no more. It cannot be trusted any further than that.